Empowering the unheard through press freedom in South Asia

Radio Mewat - © UNESCO

World Press Freedom Day 2012 was celebrated in India with a conference on the theme, Rural Voices: Unheard to Empowered, jointly organized by UNESCO, the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) and Sesame Workshop India Trust. Held in Gurgaon, at the IRRAD complex, the event brought together over 150 participants from media organizations, professional bodies, development agencies, the government, academia, and civil society organizations.

World Press Freedom Day 2012 came at a time of momentous challenges for journalism in South Asia. Journalists in the region have responded to these challenges by seeking a manner of professional engagement that reflects all South Asia’s rich diversities.

Physical security remains an issue in most of South Asia. The relative improvement seen in several countries of the region may have been achieved by deliberate decisions to cut the risks involved in reporting highly sensitive stories. And the sharp deterioration of an already bad situation in Pakistan far outweighed the slight improvements elsewhere.

Launch of the South Asia press freedom monitoring report - © UNESCO

Journalism was a hazardous pursuit through long years of internal conflict in Nepal and Sri Lanka. And now with conflict at an end and processes of political reconciliation underway, journalists are finding that several of the passions of the years of open warfare are yet to subside. Verbal aggression against journalists who dare to report all sides of a story and stand up for basic norms of fair treatment continues to be a threat.

These are some of the findings of the UNESCO-supported monitoring report on press freedom in South Asia, produced by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and launched on 3 May:

Radio Bundhelkand - © UNESCO

In spite of the fact that India is the largest democracy in the world and that all social groups could practice free speech and expression, community media remain the only means of expression and political participation for grassroots groups with no access to the mainstream media. Freedom of expression for community media is thus essential for empowering marginalized communities in rural and underdeveloped contexts. This was the core theme that the conference in Gurgaon sought to address.

In his opening remarks, Shigeru Aoyagi, Director of the UNESCO Office in New Delhi, emphasized that the conference’s theme paid tribute to the critical role played by community media in promoting democracy and good governance. He also highlighted the particular efficiency of community radio not only as a development tool but as a channel for two-way communication, and acknowledged that the Indian Community Radio Policy places community radio within the framework of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution (which enshrines the freedom of speech and expression). Quoting Amartya Sen’s statement that giving a voice to the voiceless is a form of development, he then outlined some of the challenges the community radio sector in India is facing today – ranging from spectrum availability to licensing procedures, sustainability and restrictions on content.

Radio Bundhelkand - © UNESCO

The various sessions of the conference highlighted the positive impact of participatory communication within rural communities, and showcased creative and successful alternative media models and practices. A wide range of alternative media were discussed – these included community radio, vernacular newspapers, wall paintings, posters, street theatre, comics and songs. The conference also reiterated the need for community inputs in the development process, and the need to identify communications resources and policy gaps in rural development.

The UNESCO Advisor for Communication and Information for South Asia, Iskra Panevska, observed:

By giving a voice to rural people, development workers and local authorities, policy acceptance processes are greatly facilitated. Another positive impact of using community media is the mobilization of people for participation and action, easy and simple dissemination of new ideas, practices and technology. Most importantly, community media can help overcome barriers of literacy, language, cultural differences and physical isolation.

The policy environment governing community media operations in India was closely examined at the WPFD 2012 conference. A number of policy shortcomings were identified and brief recommendations made. Finally, the conference culminated in a session for stakeholders to prepare plans for collective action and cooperation. Participants’ responses indicated that they were optimistic about the plans developed and new partnerships forged. Ms Jane Schukoske, CEO of IRRAD, had earlier remarked that the event had been conceived as a platform to “share innovative ideas, discuss policy and plan together to enlarge media access for rural communities”. Each of these goals had been discussed in a separate session and recommendations have been formulated for meeting the objectives.

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